BY VIKRAM MURTHI
For better or worse, “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00” showcases Mr. Robot at its best — a taut cyberthriller that foregrounds suspense and removes any remaining slack. Credited writers Kor Adana and Randolph Leon craft a real-time episode that covers the day when the Dark Army launches Stage 2. Elliot, still feeling the aftereffects of Angela’s knockout serum, arrives to work at E Corp with no memory of the previous weekend. He has no idea that Angela arranged for him to be fired, and that she, Mr. Robot, and Tyrell have worked “behind his back” to engineer Stage 2 on the day of the U.N. vote to allow China to annex the Congo. Elliot is a blank slate running on autopilot, suffering from a runtime error that he can’t quite fix. But as soon as he sits at his cubicle, he figures out the score and must stop the Dark Army terror plot before it’s too late. It’s the best episode of the season so far.
And it would be even better if it weren’t edited to look like one long continuous shot.
Long takes are notoriously difficult to shoot. They require intense preparation and choreography on the part of the actors and the production team. When appropriately employed, long takes can foster a sort of documentary-like immediacy that traps the audience in the tenor of the moment. When they’re overused like a cheap parlor trick, it only reminds the audience of the larger filmic illusion at work.
Sam Esmail likes long takes, and that’s fine. The vast majority of these long takes in Mr. Robot keep the focus squarely on the action and not on camera placement. But “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00” unsuccessfully tries to sell the audience that the entire episode occurs in one 45-minute take. Putting aside the shoddy cheats used to disguise obvious cuts, this tactic functions less as a conduit for urgent drama and more like self-flattery.
In 2009, the Mike D’Angelo wrote a critique of the famous car scene in Children of Men, where he argued that lengthy takes like these merely serve as a distraction since they call attention to their own existence. These shots, he claimed, don’t accomplish their intended goals: They feel less realistic and more manufactured than if they were discernible cuts. Cuts aren’t cheats; they closely represent how we see the world.
“Our visual field does not operate like a Steadicam,” D’Angelo wrote. “If a cut represents a shift in time or location, e.g. flying prehistoric bone to monolithic future space station, that’s one thing … But if it merely represents a shift in angle, as most cuts within a given scene do, we tend to perceive it as continuity, so long as it isn’t deliberately jarring in some way. Traditional montage works precisely because it’s what we’re accustomed to in real life.”
With “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00,” Kor Adana and Randolph Leon have already devised an episode rife with tension, complete with an ominous timetable and the impending threat of violence and destruction. Esmail doesn’t ratchet up the tension by refusing to cut away from Angela’s distraught face or treating the camera like a floating eyeball with its own agenda. Instead, it just creates the sense of unreality, that we’re seeing something constructed rather than a harrowing event happening in real time, which is almost certainly the intention.
Luckily, the narrative mechanics work overtime to resolve the contradiction between the script and the camera. As soon as Elliot learns that Stage 2 is still underway and that he’s about to be fired, he goes “on the run” but within the bland E Corp headquarters. He jumps from floor to floor, manufacturing distractions on the fly. He even busts into a meeting in order to evade security and provides the team leader a pep talk about unknown variables getting in the way of a deadline. “When you find yourself at the center of one of those storms,” Elliot says, “you just gotta breathe. Just let go. Get it done.”
Unfortunately, E Corp kicks Elliot out of the building before he’s able to get to the Hardware Security Modules (HSMs) to stop the Dark Army from bypassing Elliot’s patch. As he waits outside while hordes of protesters angrily chant, Darlene finds him and tells him two things: (1) She’s working with the FBI, jeopardizing her immunity agreement, and (2) Angela is in cahoots with Tyrell and Mr. Robot.
Esmail then shifts the action to a group of Dark Army–sponsored protesters who break into E Corp and terrorize the place. We eventually find Angela in her office, where she receives a phone call from Irving telling her that the plan has hit a snag. He instructs her to get Elliot to create a backup of the HSMs using an internal audit disguise. Knowing she can’t get Elliot in time, Angela takes the opportunity to embark on the mission herself.
The Angela half of the episode doesn’t work as well as Elliot’s because some of it beggars belief (I’m begrudgingly willing to accept that Dark Army “magic” can help her evade capture twice after being spotted with a false ID), and also because cyberhacking isn’t that fun to watch. There’s a whole section of the episode when Angela just searches for a USB stick, if that’s any indication of what I’m talking about. Fortunately, Portia Doubleday’s performance keeps the action moving at a clip because she conveys her desperate commitment to Whiterose and her own naïve fears about what she’s become. By the end, she completes the task on her own, but not before Elliot makes it back into the building to confront her.
The contingency plan is in motion. E Corp offices have been destroyed. The downtown recovery building is set to blow. “Is there something you want to tell me?” Elliot asks, enraged by the betrayal of his sister and now his friend. Just breathe. Just let go. Get it done.
• The crackling of Elliot’s brain in the beginning of the episode was an especially nice touch. It initially led me to believe that this episode would forgo Elliot’s voice-over entirely, forcing him to rely only on his surroundings rather than his mind. In retrospect, that was wishful thinking.
• In a rash moment, Elliot chews out Simar (Ramy Youssef), his cubicle buddy, for constantly indulging in patently false, graphic sex talk. Though he initially responds negatively, he eventually caves and admits he’s only gotten laid twice.
• Funniest moment: The random office drone arguing with his wife in the stairwell about picking up his son. “Are you gonna really get into that right now? That was one time I told him I hated him!” he exclaims.
• Music Corner: This week, it’s all Philip Glass, which is an inspired choice on Esmail’s part. Sections of “Knee Play 1” from Glass’s 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach plays in the beginning and middle of the episode. “Scene II-Bed (Vocal)” plays near the end.